Political "gaffes" that were not actually gaffes

I’m watching a compilation of “the 15 worst fails from Presidential Debates” and I’m trying to figure out exactly what was so bad about, for instance…

Michael Dukakis’s response to the question about the death penalty: it was a fucking loaded question, what was he supposed to do, tear his shirt open and pound his chest? Why did people deride him as “emotionless” for responding in a collected and reasonable manner to this outrageously stupid question?

James Stockdale saying “who am I? What am I doing here?” - it was A JOKE. He opened with a joke, the crowd laughed, what exactly is the problem here?

Most of the other “fails” were indeed pretty dumb remarks, but I keep seeing the above two incidents mentioned again and again as examples of stupid and embarrassing comments, and…I’m just not seeing it, I guess?

If you’re willing to be somewhat charitable and forgiving, to look for someone’s intended meaning even when their words are a bit clumsy, then there’s nothing wrong with either of the examples you gave.

American politics, sadly, does not share those assumptions.

I don’t know if this is on the list or not but I can’t fault GWB for the “Mission Accomplished” banner. It referred to a specific mission, that of the United States military kicking the shit out of the Iraqi military. It had nothing to do with winning the peace.

I don’t know if it was the banner itself as much as the pompous presentation of it on an aircraft carrier and Bush’s arrival on a jet, in this case an S-3 Viking, not a fighter plane as is often erroneously referred, and Bush did not fly it himself, he was riding backseat in it.

Bush did fly an F-102 fighter-interceptor in the Texas Air National Guard and those ANG interceptors were a key component of Strategic Air Command, and so I can’t diminish his credentials as others have sought to do - he performed a useful role, in a situation where he could have just done nothing as so many other wealthy young men did. To their credit, the old money blueblood families of the East Coast, of which Bush was obviously a member, did often take commissions in the military during wars when they could very easily have spent that time in Lake Como or some other European getaway doing fuck-all. But I digress.

Bush sought to cash in on his fighter-pilot past with that stunt, but all he “accomplished” was looking very pretentious.

Furthermore, AIUI, it was the ship crew that decided to put that banner there. Bush didn’t ask for it.

JFK never called himself a jelly doughnut. The people who think he did are people who know how to work a dictionary but have no clue how to translate, which is a very different skill.

(Word of the day: “Pragmatics”. Don’t know it? Context clues, people.)

Remember Dukakis wearing the tank helmet?
I thought it was a bit silly, and totally unnecessary, but I don’t see why it had to be a career-killer.

Politicians wear and do lots of things which are clearly not their true personna. They kiss babies, they wear tuxedos to the opera when they know nothing about music, they dress like good ol’ boys in lumberjack shirts when they visit a state fair, they go hunting once( while pretending it’s something they’ve done as a hobby all their life), etc----and everybody knows these are just photo ops.

In which case the gaffe was thinking that kicking the shit out of the Iraqi military was a significant accomplishment whose celebration would play well with the electorate. Simply having the strength to kick the shit out of people or nations smaller than yourself is not a virtue.

I’m not sure it would be a gaffe today. But it happened at the peak of the crime wave, when support for the death penalty was over 70%.

You don’t even need to understand pragmatics (which I focused on in graduate school applied linguistics) to debunk the myth–you just need to know German.

Howard Dean’s “Yeee-Haaaw!” moment from the 2004 campaign. It was awkward, it made for a bad sound bite when taken out of context but it was just him getting fired up. Hardly an unwanted quality in a candidate, much less a gaffe.

yes, this one really surprised me. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. Yeah, it sounded more like a cheer at a sports event than a serious political rally. But Dean surely didn’t deserve tto suffer ridicule and disgrace because of it.

I think it wasn’t so much his Yeehaaaw as it was that Dean was in a crowded field of contenders, was already considered somewhat of a loose cannon and too temperamental for the POTUS job, and this was a straw that broke the camel’s back when the camel already had a very thin spine.

Had he already secured the Democratic nomination, it would hardly be considered an issue because it would then be only him vs. Bush and the blues would be fully united behind Dean.

It was the Abraham Lincoln crew who put it up. The had had an 11 month deployment, extended twice.

As I recall, they stayed just out of the harbor just so Bush could land on it and get a nice photo op. Yeah, show your gratitude to the troops by keeping them at sea an extra day.

To be a true gaffe, the incident must reinforce some pre-existing negative impression that the public had about the candidate. Whether or not that impression is accurate is irrelevant.

Dukakis had a very dovey reputation, and the photo op of him riding a tank was supposed to make him look a bit badass. It didn’t; it made him look like Snoopy.

Dean already had a loose cannon reputation, and The Scream just cemented that into place. It didn’t kill his campaign, however. His dismal finish in Iowa did that well before the speech.

The two gaffes cited by the OP were gaffes in that they confirmed stereotypes of the candidates that the public was already inclined to believe: that Dukakis was passionless and Stockdale was senile.

Regardless of whether Kennedy called himself a jelly donut or not, it certainly wasn’t a gaffe, since it went over very well with his audience. They knew that he wasn’t speaking his native language (and heck, the fact that he was speaking their language at all was already a point in his favor), and so were willing to forgive him for a grammatical slip.

Considering that the opponent was George HW Bush, one would have expected that “thoughtfully mild-mannered and kind of boring” would have been a non-issue in ‘88. But yes, in the past, “gaffes” have been very often just minor things that were grabbed on to iconize what you already had in your mind as a negative against that candidate.

Bush 41 was pretty passionless and boring, but Dukakis was just that much worse in that respect. And I believe Bush was actually prepared by his staff for traps like that, whereas Dukakis’ people were caught flatfooted.